By Patricia Sanchez
The UC Santa Cruz women’s rugby team is redefining the notion of “man’s sport,” one scrum at a time.
With broken bones, bloody noses and a few concussions, these girls give it their all despite the inherent dangers of such a violent game.
“We get hurt a lot,” said Kathleen Daniel, a current player who suffered two concussions at her first tournament. “We already have like three players out and the season hasn’t even started yet.” After the tournament, Daniel agreed that she should have been taken out after the first concussion, but insisted at the time that it was no big deal.
The women on the team make it clear that they understand the fine line between playing injured and being hurt, because the sport requires a threshold and a tolerance for pain. But pain is just one of many things the women have to deal with. Especially in an aggressive sport like rugby, the team has to confront the stigmas that affect female athletes.
The physical nature of rugby leads many to assume that women who play the sport must either be especially masculine (or gay), or they must be playing an abridged version of the game—the team refutes both assumptions.
“Men in their older 20s, early 30s think there is something different about my sport,” said Laurel Britton, a former UCSC rugger. “They think maybe we wear padding, or something, but we don’t.”
Unlike basketball, where the regulation ball is slightly smaller for women; or softball, where the mound height, bat length and the number of innings are all different from baseball; or lacrosse, where the women’s version of the game does not permit full contact—women’s rugby operates with exactly the same set of rules as the men’s game.
The women’s team also follows with traditions like singing team songs and attending social gatherings with both teammates and opponents.
The team members take offense to the notion that women ought not to play what Scott Carson, the UCSC men’s rugby head coach, described as traditionally “a ruffian’s sport for gentlemen.”
Kathleen Daniel expressed anger as she explained that she once had a male doctor tell her that it was inappropriate for a girl to play rugby.
“I don’t feel he had a right to tell me that,” Daniel said.
Laurel Britton also expressed dissatisfaction that the public is often shocked to see a woman playing a “man’s sport.”
“I talked to people on the plane [while flying to a playoff game last season] and I kind of got this sideways look when I told them I play rugby,” Britton said.
Coach Carson recognizes that men often make unfair assumptions about women’s rugby.
“[The women’s game] has been called a gross bastardization of the sport,” Carson said.
Sinan Dumlugo, a member of the men’s rugby team, puts in some time helping out the women’s team. He is hopeful that attitudes will soon change, but even he is of two minds about the women’s game.
“[The game] is really not slower,” Dumlugo said, discrediting the stereotype that women’s sports are less exciting than men’s. “You just have to look at it more patiently.”
Another common stereotype that the women face is the idea that female athletes are ultra masculine. Female athletes are often judged on these grounds.
“People tend to think women players are dykes,” Britton said.
Daniel, who is a lesbian, recalled signing up for the team with her girlfriend at the yearly OPERS festival and noticed that the rugby table was stationed right next to the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender (GLBT) table—though she was unsure as to whether that was intentional.
There does exist a gay-friendly organization called the International Gay Rugby Association and Board that promotes the sport to lesbians and gay men around the world, but for the most part the women’s rugby team scoffed at the idea that the game inherently appealed to any sexual orientation.
Changing the negative perceptions about female athletes has and will continue to pose a challenge. However, support and equal opportunity for women in athletics has risen markedly over the past few decades.
Title IX, a law that passed in 1972, requires that women receive equal opportunities in public school sports. Rita Walker is UCSC’s Title IX director, and makes sure that the school complies with the current expectations of the State in connection with the law.
Walker has personally seen the increase in opportunities for women in athletics. When Walker was in school in the ’60s and ’70s, elementary and middle school girls could only cheerlead because there were no women’s sports teams, she said. Walker, who graduated high school one year after the law was passed, could not get enough support to start a women’s basketball team just several years prior.
“My freshman year of high school, we organized into a basketball team scheduling our own practices and games with other schools,” Walker said. “The only thing we needed was one teacher to ride with us and we could not get one teacher to agree.”
Kevin “Skippy” Givens, the director of intramural and club sports at UCSC, has also seen the progression of women in sports during his lifetime.
“I have two younger sisters and when we were growing up they didn’t have those opportunities,” Givens said. “They were just as athletic as I was, but since they didn’t have the opportunities they just laid dormant.”
Support for the women’s rugby teams has shown a significant improvement in the last 10 years at UCSC, as well.
“[In 2002] they didn’t even have enough people to field 15 to a side, so they’d have to pick up players from the other team just to get a game played,” Givens said. Givens claims that the women’s rugby team was falling apart because the team’s resources were no longer adequate and the sport was weakly advertised. A lack of funding and university recognition really hurt the team.
Britton recalled her time with the team last year when the women didn’t even have uniforms to wear.
“We had to wear big, baggy, old men’s jerseys because we didn’t have any money,” Britton said. “Students would have to buy their own equipment and sometimes we’d use hand-me-downs from the guys or old team members.”
But like most of the setbacks the team has been dealt, Daniel said that the team found a way to brush it off.
“We don’t care how we look,” she said. “If we wanted to do that we’d play volleyball with those tight-ass shorts or something. We’re playing to have fun.”
Several years ago, in an attempt to fundraise, the rugby players created and tried to market team calendars featuring semi-nude photos of the players. But they received complaints that the calendar was anti-feminist and stopped selling it.
Permanent funding for the team was finally established last spring when students passed a referendum to provide club sports teams with university funding.
“It’s $2,000 and it’s really not much if you look at their overall budget,” Givens said. ”But it is something coming from the university and it certainly does help.”
Though support from the university is on the rise, at times even the players’ family members worry about their loved ones’ involvement with such a violent sport.
After her son tore his PCL and underwent surgery as a result of a rugby injury, Terri McMahon, mother of team member Kelly McMahon, was apprehensive about seeing her daughter play.
“When [Kelly] told us she was playing rugby, we said, â€˜Oh my god, not again,’” Terri McMahon said. “But what could we do, tie her down with a ball and chain?”
Kelly’s father, Michael McMahon, said that he enjoys watching women play because of the sportsmanship the team displays.
“It’s not a single superstar or a single dunk; it has to be a team sport,” he said. “They derive their strength from the team.”
Sinan Dumlugo also appreciates women rugby players, though he seems to have different reasons.
“[They] remind me of that Foster’s commercial of a girl that’s gorgeous and then takes a beer can and crushes it on her head,” Dumlugol said. “I would propose to her on the spot.”
Mercedes Evangelista, a returning player, tries her best to live above the stereotypes that surround women in her sport; instead she just focuses on playing and having fun.
“I never thought of it as a male-only sport,” Evangelista said. After all, “It’s 2007.”